The smell of spring is in the air at Rick and Amanda Bergman’s house. A peek into their “sugar shack” reveals a big vat fired by firewood and a sweet pervasive steam filling the air. However, for this hard working couple, the maple syrup season is coming to an end. “I’d say by this weekend we will be done,” said Rick. “Once we get a couple of days in the 60s, then the sap stops running.”
Unlike last year, this season has been a good one for maple syrup makers in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. The Bergmans started tapping their trees in mid-March, but the sap didn’t start flowing until the first of April and it hasn’t stopped since. “We’ve been spending a lot of time in the sugar shack this year,” said Amanda. “Once you fire up the evaporator, you have to watch it pretty closely. You have to keep the fire stoked up.”
Making maple syrup is a lot of hard work and it’s more than a hobby for the Bergmans. The couple taps 300 maple trees on their farm near Parrish to gather the sap. Some of the trees are fitted with an intricate system of hoses and bags. The sap runs from the tree directly into a tank by gravity, making gathering it easier. But there are many other trees with only a single tap and a bucket hanging underneath. “We have some friends come and help us carry these buckets through the woods to a barrel where they are dumped,” said Rick. “That was hard work this year because of all the deep snow.”
The Bergmans figure by the end of the season they will make about 70 gallons of syrup. On average, it takes 40 gallons of sap to boil into one gallon of the sweet elixir. This year the average was about 35 to 1. “It is sweeter this year, with less water in it and more sugar,” said Rick. “That’s good because it cuts down on the boiling time.”
Nonetheless, the couple may spend between 10 to 16 hours in the sugar shack during the season. This year, almost every day during April the couple could be found in the woods, gathering the sap. They usually gather it in the afternoon, avoiding the colder morning hours when the sap can be frozen. Once Rick and Amanda have enough sap to boil, they pour it into a big vat Rick and a friend built. It is sectioned into compartments so the sap stays at a consistent temperature. Underneath is a cavern where a wood fire burns constantly to keep the sap at a slow boil. The by-product of this is a constant wafting of steam that fills the shack with a delicate sweet aroma. Rick spends a lot of time throughout the year gathering wood to keep this fire going.
Rick converted an old garage into his sugar shack. Then he added on a small room in the back where a gas stove is used in the final process of the boil. Once the syrup is made, it is strained and then bottled for customers. Amanda bottles it into pints, quarts, half-gallons and even gallon containers.
Rick has been a fervent maple syrup maker for 40 years and Amanda has been helping for 10 years, ever since the couple married. They also raise beef cows, pigs in the summer and chickens, and Amanda tends a half-acre garden. They both enjoy bringing their products, including their syrup, to the farmer markets in Rhinelander and Minocqua throughout the summer months.
Rick and Amanda really enjoy all this work, though. “It is the first crop of the season,” said Rick. “It feels good to be able to get out into the woods after a long winter.”
Rick believes that a good maple syrup season indicates a good growing year, too. Last year the season didn’t last long because of all the warm weather that came in March. “Last year’s growing season wasn’t very good and neither was syrup season,” he said. “This year is one of the best ever, so I believe we are going to have a great growing season this year.”
The Bergman’s can be reached at (715) 873-4032.